Trump Will Become the Next Stalin Without Critics Like Jeff Flake

All of a sudden, there are numerous comparisons of President Donald Trump to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. This isn't new, but the frequency and intensity are. I wonder if we are approaching an inflection point beyond which we won't be arguing, when it will be plain to everyone, not just the president's detractors, that Trumpism is totalitarianism's cousin.

The most important instance of this comparison came from Jeff Flake. The outgoing Arizona Republican senator said Trump's phrase "enemy of the people," to describe the press, recalls Stalin. On Sunday, he said, "I'm saying he borrowed that phrase. It was popularized by Josef Stalin, used by Mao as well—'enemy of the people.' It should be noted that Nikita Khrushchev who followed Stalin, forbade its use, saying that was too loaded and that it maligned a whole group or class of people, and it shouldn't be done."

On Wednesday, Flake delivered his address on the Senate floor in which he took this critique a step further. He not only compared Trump to Stalin; he compared Stalin's apparatchiks to Trumpists in the Republican Party. "It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Joseph Stalin to describe his enemies," Flake said. "This alone," he added, "should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president's party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements."

Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake on Wednesday. Alex Wong/Getty

If this is not an inflection point, it is this: a clearly defined benchmark in the history of the Republican Party. The GOP's raison d'etre for at least seven decades was anti-communism. Indeed, some scholars believe anti-communism was the glue that held together the grab-bag of interest groups that is known as movement conservatism, a coalition that led to the rise of Ronald Reagan and the fall of the Berlin Wall. And now we have a sitting senator confirming what may already believed: That without anti-communism, the Republican Party would fall apart. Moreover, one of its own is likening the GOP to its former enemy.

This all by itself is breathtaking. But it may be more. It may be a fringe idea that's going mainstream. (Or it may be already mainstream, but it's hard to tell if so.)

Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, was reminded of George Orwell's thoughts on totalitarianism after Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue beggared what's left of their reputations in order to shield Trump from his own "shithole countries" remark. Orwell was a novelist and journalist. Along with 1984 and Animal Farm, he wrote about the rise of fascism and communism in Europe and Russia. Krugman wrote, on Twitter, "I've been trying to put my finger on what's so disturbing about the spectacle of Cotton and Perdue lying so obviously and blatantly to protect Trump. And I think I have it: here you have U.S. senators--US senators!--acting like apparatchiks."

Krugman added: "Orwell wrote about this at length; most famously in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but long before then, for example in Looking Back at the Spanish War, where he described the rejection of the very notion of objective truth." Krugman found this quote from Orwell: "If the Leader says of such and such event, 'It never happened'—well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five—well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs—and after our experience of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement."

At Washington Monthly, Mike Lofgren—a career congressional staffer who originally defined "deep state" to update President Dwight Eisenhower's warning against the "military-industrial-complex"—noted that Trump's desiccated husk of an ego multiplied by power hungry sycophants equals a personality cult on par with Stalin's. "Washington is no stranger to subordinates heaping praise on their leader," he wrote. "And when a politician blunders, his underlings hasten to explain away the gaffe, or, if need be, to take the fall. But the current administration carries these tendencies to lengths that would make Caesar blush." (His piece was published before Tuesday's "girther" controversy over the president's true height and weight.)

Senator John McCain made an oblique comparison to Stalin in a Washington Post op-ed, urging the president to stop attacking the press, saying that Trump's "fake news" assaults are inspiring foreign leaders around the world to take aim at journalists trying to hold power to account. The Committee to Protect Journalists took this a step further, awarding Trump the top prize for "world leaders who have gone out of their way to attack the press and undermine the norms that support freedom of the media."

The CPJ was overstating, but we are not as far as way from this as you might think. I wrote recently about the demagoguery of White House aide Stephen Miller. While journalists seek to establish facts, demagogues like Miller seek to annihilate the fact-seekers, and to create conditions in which sifting fact from fiction is nearly impossible.

Miller is a textbook example of what Hannah Arendt noted during a time when the GOP was rousing the U.S. to the Soviet menace. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she wrote, "One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive."

It's true that Flake is on his way out, and that his speech would have mattered more had he delivered it before Trump's election. But those who saw the writing on the wall should have more patience. Public opinion takes time to move. No one gave a second thought about Eisenhower's farewell speech in 1961, but over time, that speech has become prophetic. I don't know if Flake's speech will rise to such heights, but time surely will tell.

John Stoehr is a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for Washington Monthly, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.